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To be on the right side of history

History is more like a succession of random events to which we later assign certain meanings. Its complicated perspectives are hard to see, in real time or even in hindsight.

Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stood with Harvard University Dean Edward L. Keenan, right, during the 1978 Harvard commencement on Jun. 8, 1978.Paul Connell/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

What’s that scratching sound I hear? It’s politicians, student activists, and rabble-rousers of all hues and stripes scuttling to position themselves on the “right side of history.”

Look — there’s House Speaker Mike Johnson, who previously opposed helping out Ukraine, pretzeling himself to unlock $61 billion in military aid for Kyiv. Why? “To be on the right side of history,” according to a colleague.

Separately, the Globe reported that during a Cambridge rally to protest Harvard University’s disciplining of pro-Palestinian protesters, “several speakers told the crowd the students facing disciplinary actions are on the right side of history.”


One student leader, Kojo Acheampong, proclaimed that “history will absolve us all.”

Good to know! Former president Barack Obama nattered endlessly about the right side of history, as if he alone had the secret compass and you didn’t. “It’s a phrase Obama loves,” The Atlantic magazine wrote in 2015. “He’s used it 15 times, in debates; at synagogues; in weekly radio addresses; at fundraisers.”

Speaking strictly for myself, I’d be a lot more cautious about making grandiose moral claims for Hamas’s “grand and blessed incursion,” as one leader characterized the massacres of Oct. 7, or even for the advisability of ratcheting up US military involvement in a European land war. But I am not among those endowed with FutureVision™, the ability to discern the historical contours of current events.

There is a natural instinct to turn history into a familiar image, such as “a river on whose waters soldiers and politicians are fighting and shedding ballots and blood,” according to popular historian Will Durant. Karl Marx likened civilization’s progress to a train propelled by revolutions, “the locomotives of history,” as he called them.

But history is more like a succession of random events to which we later assign certain meanings. Its complicated perspectives are hard to see, in real time or even in hindsight.


For example, I would say that few men altered the course of 20th-century history as much as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the cold-eyed chronicler of the excesses of Soviet communism, in his famous 1973 historical trilogy, “The Gulag Archipelago.” At a very minimum, the books discredited communism in Western Europe, where countries such as France and Italy once had powerful Communist movements.

One could make the case that Solzhenitsyn, the winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature, so debunked the Soviet experiment that it was hardly an accident when the USSR imploded in 1991, less than 20 years after “Gulag’s” initial publication.

The right side of history? You bet! But wait a second; Solzhenitsyn wasn’t finished with history quite yet. In 1990, he published a short tome called “Rebuilding Russia,” which tackled the thorny question of what the post-USSR Russia should look like.

Writing with magisterial confidence, Solzhenitsyn suggested that the new Russia should look a lot like the pre-Soviet Russian Empire. Greater Russia should include swatches of Kazakhstan, Belarus, and — self-evidently to the author — most of Ukraine, which he deemed to be part of the “living organism” of Russia.

You know where this is going. Before his death in 2008, Solzhenitsyn’s notion of making Russia great again caught the eye of Vladimir Putin, who first assumed the Russian presidency in 2000. Solzhenitsyn argued that Ukraine’s political unrest derived from a plan to encircle Russia, with Ukraine vying for “greedy NATO membership.” “Years later,” as Casey Michel recently wrote in Foreign Policy, “Solzhenitsyn’s comments are almost indistinguishable from Putin’s rhetoric about Ukraine.”


So you could say that Solzhenitsyn has stood on both sides of history. Or you could take the idea of a right- and wrong-sided history and toss it in the trash.

There is a sardonic saying that money doesn’t care who owns it, which explains why so many millionaires are complete idiots. Likewise, history doesn’t care who’s living it. There’s no arc of justice — would that there were! — there’s no right side, only the whisperless passing of time.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.